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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Danica Jenkins, Lecturer in European Studies, University of Sydney

On a freezing spring night in March, Georgia’s national soccer team beat Greece in a nail-biter penalty shootout to qualify for the Euro 2024 championships. The atmosphere on the streets of the capital Tbilisi was electric – it was a euphoric and self-affirming moment for the small Caucasian nation. More than just a soccer match, it signalled to many Georgians their country was on the right path after finally gaining official European Union candidate status in December 2023.

Barely six weeks later, however, Georgia’s European future hangs in the balance. The warm, convivial atmosphere of that post-match night has been replaced by violent street clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters who fear the increasing Russification of their country.

From my house in Tbilisi, I hear the reverberations of these demonstrations grow louder each night, moving from their epicentre outside parliament to Heroes Square – a monument built to honour Georgians who have died fighting for the integrity of their nation.

As the movement grows beyond Georgia’s capital, tens of thousands continue to rally against a controversial bill being pushed through parliament by the ruling Georgian Dream party. Critics say the legislation was taken straight from the pages of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook.

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Georgia is sliding towards autocracy after government moves to force through bill on ‘foreign agents’

Why the bill is causing anger

The so-called “Foreign Agents Bill” would require groups in Georgia that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as “agents of foreign influence”. It is a move that Georgian Dream claims will increase transparency among media, civil society and other non-governmental organisations, and protect Georgian statehood.

The government first introduced the bill last year, but was forced to withdraw it under pressure from protesters and Georgia’s Western allies.

As tensions on Tbilisi’s streets have heightened over the past week with the first and second parliamentary readings of the bill, opposition groups have urged the government to withdraw it again. They fear it will lead to a crackdown on independent media and civic liberties as it did in Russia when a similar law was introduced in 2012 and then expanded a decade later.

The legislation is just the latest in a series of questionable actions by Georgian Dream that seem to be leading the country away from its constitutionally enshrined Western path and into alignment with Kremlin-style authoritarianism.

EU leaders have warned the law could derail the country’s hopes of joining the bloc, if it is passed. With recent polls indicating nearly 90% of Georgians support joining the EU, this prospect was enough to compel many angry, mostly young citizens onto the streets.

As Niki Tarkhan-Mouravi, an independent publisher and activist who has been attending the nightly protests, told me:

We are scared the new legislation will give the government more control over Georgian people, on what they do and how they get funded. If passed, it will slowly shut down all organisations working hard in Georgia to promote Western values, such as individual rights and our commitment to building a more open society, as it did in Russia. And we do not want to be like Russia – our future is in Europe.

A test of a young democracy

This is a familiar story across the post-Soviet landscape, where the Western aspirations of young democracies frequently collide with the realities of living in Russia’s orbit.

Georgian Dream came to power in 2012, largely in response to then-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s increasingly unpopular neoliberal reforms and confrontational approach to Russia, which many believe led to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.

Since then, Georgian Dream has maintained a fragile balance between pursuing the public’s Western aspirations and appeasing Russia, Georgia’s neighbour to the north. It has increasingly favoured the latter, however, especially since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, another neighbour, in 2022.

Indeed, domestic politics in former Soviet republics are often far more complex and delicate than Western critics may fathom. One need only look at Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to see what happens when citizens of Russia’s neighbours begin to voice civic aims that stray too far from Putin’s sphere.

Georgia has been deeply scarred by the experience of wars with Russia. Some 20% of its territory is still occupied by Russian forces from the 2008 conflict. Georgian Dream has exploited the public’s fear of Russian aggression as a pretext for domestic political gain.

Yet, Georgian citizens also understand the predicament of living in Russia’s shadow.

Images of security forces using water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds of peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi are strikingly reminiscent of Ukraine’s 2013 Euromaidan protests.

These were prompted by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to renege on Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia. The protests grew into Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity several months later, which ousted Yanukovych and gave rise to a new generation of anti-corruption, pro-democratic leaders.

However, the revolution also prompted Russia to annex Crimea and incite an insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region in 2014. This laid the groundwork for Russia’s war in Ukraine today.

Where Georgia goes from here

It remains to be seen whether the protests in Georgia will grow into a Euromaidan-style revolution. However, a nascent civil society is clearly defining its core values more sharply in response to threat.

Georgia is at a crossroads not simply because of the government’s decisions, but because a young, civic-minded population is coming of age and wants to safeguard its democratic future.

But if Georgians truly want to parlay their Western aspirations into a more resilient democratic future, they must back up their anti-Russian rhetoric with a deeper sociocultural and historical reckoning.

This will involve in-depth public discussions about the past and future direction of the nation. Georgian politicians and citizens alike must recognise the collective responsibility of building and maintaining an open society.

For now, my Georgian friends and their fellow citizens await the bill’s final reading in parliament on May 17. At a time when even established democracies are grappling with deep fragmentation and polarisation, it is clear these protests are more significant than merely the domestic affairs of a peripheral Caucasian nation.

The Conversation

Danica Jenkins does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. ‘We do not want to be like Russia’: a first-hand account of Georgia’s fight for democracy –